UC Berkeley research led to Nobel Prize-winning immunotherapy

Spencer Underwood
October 1, 2018

James P Allison, who is Professor and Chair of the Department of Immunology at MD Anderson Cancer Centre at the University of Texas, studied a known protein, CTLA-4, that functions as a brake on the immune system's killer T-cells.

Both Allison and Honjo discovered how to lift the molecular "brakes" that keep our immune cells from attacking ourselves - specifically for the cancer cells that spawn inside of us.

The citation for this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine says the two honorees developed therapies for treating cancer.

Around the same time, Honjo discovered a protein on immune cells, the ligand PD-1, and eventually realised that it also worked a brake, but it acted differently.

Allison and Honjo "showed how different strategies for inhibiting the brakes on the immune system can be used in the treatment of cancer", it said, adding that resulting treatments, known as immune checkpoint blockade, have "fundamentally changed the outcome" for some advanced cancer patients.

The scientists' work led to treatments targeting proteins made by some immune system cells that act as a "brake" on the body's natural defenses eradicating cancer cells.

"I didn't set out to study cancer, but to understand the biology of T cells, these incredible cells that travel our bodies and work to protect us".

James Allison and Tasuku Honjo have jointly received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their work on immune checkpoints.

In the early 1990s, Allison had been studying a protein called CTLA-4, which sits in the outer layer - the membrane - of an active T-cell and behaves like an off-switch. "His research has led to life-saving treatments for people who otherwise would have little hope".

Their work centers on harnessing the immune system to arrest the development of cancer.

"I never dreamed my research would take the direction it has", he said in a statement on his university's website.

"I would like to keep on doing my research.so that this immune treatment could save more cancer patients", he said.

"I want to continue my research... so that this immune therapy will save more cancer patients than ever", he told reporters at the University of Kyoto where he is based. The field hums with stories of lives extended: "the woman with a grapefruit-size tumor in her lung from melanoma, alive and healthy 13 years later; the 6-year-old near death from leukemia, now in third grade and in remission; the man with metastatic kidney cancer whose disease continued fading away even after treatment stopped".

"It's like your body uses your own army to fight cancer", she said.

Medicine is the first of the Nobel Prizes awarded each year.

Awards in physics, chemistry, peace and economics will follow.

The literature prize will not be handed out this year after the awarding body was hit by a sexual misconduct scandal.

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